On a Friday afternoon of uncommon autumn beauty, local students walked out of their last class of the week and held a march seeking action now to protect our planet.

Students approach Castle Park from South Whidbey High School Sept. 24 to march for climate awareness

United Student Leaders from South Whidbey are part of an international movement, Global Fridays for Future action #UprootTheSystem, which formed in the wake of teen activist Greta Thunberg’s three-week protest outside the Swedish Parliament in 2018. Sept. 24th marked a worldwide observance to promote climate justice.

Greta and other activists then met each school day asking Parliament to take immediate action on Earth’s climate crisis. Since 2018, Greta’s movement has grown to include +14 million students and activists in 7,500 cities on every continent. Greta was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and is the youngest person to be named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” One of Greta’s notable lines is, “You are never too small to make a difference!”

Gathering at Castle Park prior to marching to strike for Climate Justice are students of United Student Leaders
United Student Leader’s Molly Nattress and one of the many signs concerning the environment and social justice

At the local level, the rally attracted approximately 175 people, including over 100 students, plus parents, siblings, and community members. The students’ goal was to enlist Island County government, as well as the county’s cities, to adopt policies now on protecting our planet’s resources.

Members of USL met at Castle Park to speak prior to their march along Maxwelton Road and then return to the high school. Student speakers noted their action could involve ‘consequences’ for exercising their right of civil disobedience.

“This is an act of civil disobedience — the teachers said we will be facing consequences,“ said Maggie Nattress, co-founder of USL. “We are honestly seeing the consequences of what we are not doing for the climate crisis.”

Maggie Nattress, co-founder, with the bullhorn, and Jackson Murphy, are members of United Student Leaders, an activist group dedicated to social justice and protecting the environment

High school principal John Patton was contacted for comment regarding the school’s policy on students taking leave of class. As of this writing, he has yet to reply to two requests.

Brook Willeford, president of the SWSD board of directors, emailed in response to the student march: “We’re excited to have students so interested in big topics of international concern like combating climate change and in their using their free speech to speak out on topics that matter to them. We’re happy to be offering an environmental sciences elective soon, which can discuss such matters in an academic setting. We do expect students to be in class during class time, and know that the group was in contact with the school administration prior to the walk out to ensure that there were no safety issues with the walk out and to make sure that all of those involved were aware of possible consequences for leaving the campus during the school day.”

Thanking the group for gathering, Claire Philp, a USL student speaking for the first time, said, “Why do we strike for the climate? It’s a crisis overlooked. As youth we don’t have the power to make decisions. Like me, you are the future. We’ve reached a point of no return. The only option is to make radical, sustainable change.”

Claire Philp of United Student Leaders speaks about her generation being the future and that Earth has reached a point of no return

Eva Wirth, another USL speaker, added, “We decided that civil disobedience works. Inaction on the climate crisis could be the end to humanity. We can’t run for office. We can’t vote. Acting like everything is normal isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

Eva Wirth of United Student Leaders addresses crowd of 175

Addressing global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, eliminating subsidies for the oil and cattle industries, ending the Congressional filibuster, and embracing the mission of BIPOC  which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color — are some issues addressed on USL’s agenda.

“This is so-so-so empowering!” said Jackson Murphy, a member of USL, looking out at the crowd. “We helped the City of Langley declare a climate emergency. Now it’s time to push our county and cities to promote climate justice.”

USL presented a climate emergency declaration to the Langley City Council last May, which the council later adopted. The student activists have worked for more than a year on addressing climate change and social justice.

Thumbs up at the Sept. 24th strike for Climate Change.

Out of the students’ request, the City of Langley has created the Climate Crisis Action Committee, an ad hoc citizen board, which includes representatives from USL.

Outgoing city councilman Peter Morton, who oversaw the committees’ recent formation, said, “Our recruiting was successful and we have 11 members with a HUGE variety of backgrounds. One of the members participated in the United Nations’ climate change conference. Our next step is to figure out the scope, ask what the guard rails are, and what do we want to be. We will address climate change on the local, regional and national levels. Our next meeting is October 7. The energy of this group is quite amazing. USL wants the county to take a similar declaration. We support this. It is an existential issue. Exist is in the word existential. Our existence is at stake.”

Speaking personally, Peter added, “It is important that we be ACTION oriented, rather than aspirational.”

The march begins with students requesting taking action now for protecting our climate
Red fall leaves frame students as they march for climate justice

Langley Mayor Scott Chaplin added, “The community of Langley is well-positioned to make some dramatic leaps forward in terms of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and making preparations for adverse  weather events, such as heavy rains, high winds and other problems that our changing climate is bringing. The city’s new Climate Crisis Action Committee is a veritable brain trust of people with experience on the international, national and local level. I am looking forward to the community coming together around solutions that save us money and make our area more resilient.”

Back at the rally, the student practiced civil disobedience. In a Bill of Rights website, this right is guaranteed.

Students exited class Friday to take part in a march in unity for climate justice
Colorful hair on one of students, part of a hundred-plus strong, who marched in the Sept. 24th ‘Fridays for Future’ movement started by young climate activist Greta Thunberg in 2018

Henry David Thoreau wrote of civil disobedience, “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?”

Asking why I was taking notes at the Sept. 24 rally, Sol Rabinovich, student representative to the South Whidbey School District’s board of directors, then commented about USL’s role in this day’s civil disobedience: “We’ve been put in a position where others’ actions define our future. Our only option is to let our actions define the next generations’ future. Our parents and grandparents may have put us in a bad position, but we will do everything in our power to guarantee prosperity for our children.”

United Student Leaders member Molly Nattress, Maggie’s sister, asks her classmates and community to join her in supporting climate justice

A former school district employee commented on the student gathering.

“This is a good crowd,” said Charlie Snelling, a retired middle school librarian, who attended the march with his dog Dusty.

“Let’s get loud!” Maggie Nattress announced through a bullhorn to the gathered crowd, asking classmates and the community to join her in supporting climate justice. “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The crowd took up answering her questions in a chant. 

Elliot Menashe, long an advocate for protecting old growth forests and natural shorelines, said, “It is good to see the kids of this generation taking up the campaigns dropped by my generation.”

Adults in the community join United Student Leaders in their climate justice march Sept. 24th

Climate change is being addressed at the state and local levels.

The MRSC — Municipal Research and Services Center — is a nonprofit organization that helps local governments across Washington State better serve their communities by providing legal and policy guidance. The group has created a webpage providing an overview of climate change in Washington state and the local and state responses.

Melanie Bacon, District 1 commissioner for Island County, sent an email commenting about the USL march Sept. 24, and described the ways the county is addressing climate change.

“I am continually inspired by the United Student Leaders at South Whidbey High School,” she wrote. “I first became aware of them a couple of years ago when I participated in their climate strike marches in Freeland, and I have listened closely to their recommendations and calls for action on climate change.

“At the county, we are putting a new focus on environmental health. We have separated our Public Health group into two clear divisions: clinical health and environmental health–what I refer to as “Healthy People” and “Healthy Islands”. Now that COVID has become a chronic situation rather than an emergent crisis, Keith Higman, our Public Health Director, is now primarily focused on the environmental side of Public Health. We want to be alert to any impacts that climate change makes on our island and shoreline water, our bluffs, our forests, our birds, our wildlife, and our sea life, and be prepared to take whatever mitigation actions become necessary. 

Drivers along Maxwelton Road last Friday afternoon witnessed a Youth Strike for Climate, organized by United Student Leaders

“This focus is new, and still developing. We are still learning. With over 200 miles of shoreline, we worry about the impacts of sea level rise on our beautiful islands. Since the window for prevention has passed, our target now must be on adaptation, mitigation, and resilience. The commissioners had a work session discussion with our county’s Department of Natural Resources a couple of months ago on this topic, which incorporated information from a number of recent studies including the 2016 Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flood Assessment, the 2018 Washington Coastline Resiliency Study, and the 2020 Sea Level Strategy Study. We are also anticipating the final report soon of the 2021 ICLEI Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Project, which will provide metrics for results of earlier action items and identify areas where efforts can be strengthened to improve greenhouse gas emissions in Island County.  We intend to create a climate action plan with measurable goals and action items to achieve those goals.

“Also on our immediate radar: transitioning our own motor pool to electric and hybrid vehicles and pushing for the establishment of electric vehicle charging stations throughout the islands.

“I am extremely grateful to the United Student Leaders for their continued spotlight on humanity’s most critical issue. I encourage them, always, to share their ideas with their elected leaders and call us to account when we fail to take the necessary actions to keep our community safe.”

Beck Diamond, a parent in the community, holds a sign saying Protect our animals
Glowing in the autumn sun, a young girl carries a sign for climate justice

Mary Michell, a mom of now grown SWSD students, walked with the students at the Sept. 24 rally and commented via FB Messenger: “The youth of today are very concerned about the climate, as they very well should be. Call your representatives in Congress to support sustainable energy initiatives. The future of humanity is at stake.”

To learn more about the Fridays for Future organization, visit this webpage. 

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